stress and the body
Stress, Anxiety and Your Gut
Why that bloated feeling may not be from what you’re eating
We’ve all been there. Stomach tight and uncomfortable. All of a sudden, our jeans feel too tight. Maybe we overate. Perhaps we ate something that didn’t agree with us — like dairy or gluten. Possibly we had a beer too many.
That sort of bloating, while hugely uncomfortable, typically goes away within a few hours or at least after a good night’s rest.
But have you ever struggled with sudden and sustained bloating for no apparent reason?
According to a Cleveland Clinic article, researchers have discovered that a lesser-known nervous system in our guts (our “second brain”) communicates with the brain in our head. Together, “our two brains” play a key role in certain diseases in our bodies and overall health.(1)
Within the gut is a complex system of nerves, called the Enteric Nervous System. Unlike other systems, the ENS is able to independently send and receive information, record experiences and respond without having to involve the brain and central nervous system (CNS)2, (the nerve system for the rest of the body).(2)
What’s even more interesting is that the ENS is in frequent communication with our CNS. This is how you get “butterflies” in your stomach when you feel nervous. How you can suddenly feel nauseous when confronted with strong emotion. And how extreme anxiety can lead to irritable bowel syndrome.
Stress and Bloating
During a Fight or Flight experience (high stress) our bodies divert blood away from the gut and shut down digestion. This is so we can direct all of our internal energy toward facing the threat.
This system worked remarkably well for our ancestors, assuming they outran whatever it was chasing them. But in today’s society, constant stress whether it’s from our jobs, unemployment, children, financial situation, home life, etc., can disrupt the gut in serious and lasting ways.
While it’s well-known that anxiety, nervousness, and stress can make you feel like running to the nearest bathroom, few people recognize stomach pain and bloating can result from the same issues.
Chronic stress is widely thought to contribute to common gut disorders including gastritis, food intolerance, and celiac disease.(3) Treat the psychological distress — through meditation, counseling, sleep improvement, exercise, etc., and symptoms often improve dramatically.
Recognize the Signs
I’ve worked with many clients over the years who tell me they feel little to no stress. Or that they don’t feel any more stressed today than the week before. And yet, “out of the blue” they feel stomach pain or suddenly look a few months pregnant.
A few years ago, my son started randomly throwing up in the night. I thought he had a stomach virus until I realized it only happened at night. As soon as the sun rose, and he didn’t have to go to school, his symptoms magically disappeared. He was too young to articulate his feelings, but we eventually realized he was anxious and afraid to face a problem at school.
I mentioned this to our family counselor, and his response surprised me. He said in a sense we were lucky that the physical manifestation of his stress (throwing up) was so obvious, and, as such, we will always know when there’s something we need to talk about.
Most adults don’t recognize the same outward signs of too much stress or anxiety in our bodies. Instead, we attribute gut discomfort to something we ate, heartburn to acidic foods, and bloating to too much or too little fiber.
While those may be the cause, I encourage you to also look at lifestyle factors.
What to Do
Slow down. Learn to recognize your body’s reaction to stress. Do you get physically ill? Do you experience gas pains, bloating, cramping, heartburn?
What are you doing when the symptoms start? What’s happening around you? Are you under a deadline? Running your children around? Finding there aren’t enough hours in the day?
How long do the symptoms last? Do they go away with a good night’s sleep, or hang around for days at a time? Do changes in your diet make a difference?
My lightbulb moment happened when I experienced sudden and prolonged gas pain for the second or third time that month. On that particular day, I felt stressed about running my daughter to dance class (trying not to be late), picking up groceries, and deciding what to make for dinner.
Running late makes me incredibly anxious, and I had been behind for most of the day, and on the other days when the pain appeared. It makes sense why my body then responded with discomfort. And now I can connect that pain with a need to breathe deeply and realize the world won’t end when I’m a few minutes late.
Recognize the patterns and then take simple steps to respond. These are just a few ideas:
- Walk in nature
- Hot bath
- Me time
Most of all, trust your what gut is trying to tell you, and know that chronic issues don’t have to be the norm!
(1) The Gut-Brain Connection
(2) Stress and bloating: Can one cause the other? | Probiotics Learning Lab
(3) Hertig, V., et al, 2007, ‘’Daily Stress and Gastrointestinal Symptoms in Women with Irritable Bowel Syndrome’’, Nursing Research, 56(6):399–406.